Sunday, 22 May 2016

Gluten Free in Italy

Here's a shot of a free-from section in a small provincial Italian supermarket in the corner of north western Italy my folks call home.

No, even when ostensibly on holiday and visiting relatives, I still can't escape the temptation of allergen-friendly foods ...

There was a nice selection of gluten-free products, but what really struck me was its location: at the entrance, by the baskets, opposite the fruit and veg (which were on the right hand side, out of shot).

Anyone come across similar in the UK?

Curiously, the dairy free milks were stocked separately, at the other end of the store. The section at the entrance held biscuits, crackers, pastas, flours, cereals and GF grains. Many contained other allergens, so the emphasis was very much on products for those with coeliac disease - awareness of which in Italy is very high. One exception was this piadina flatbread above - which was confirmed free from gluten, wheat, milk, lactose, egg, nuts, soya, sesame and peanuts. It is by Free G. (Here's a GF piadina recipe, should your appetite be whetted.)

The other thing that I found noteworthy about the section was that it was unsignposted. No consipicuous Senza Glutine sign was to be seen anywhere, nor indeed 'Free From' - which, I discovered, is becoming a more commonly used expression in Italy.

I'm not quite sure how to interpret this. Might the placement reflect an attempt to warmly welcome free-from shoppers from the word go, and allow them a shopping experience where the gluten-y bread (at the far end) could be easily avoided? Does the absence of any obvious signage 'normalise' the food, removing any perceived stigma of shopping in the 'special' section of the supermarket?

Who knows ...

In other news, Lucca - an ancient picturesque town in which I spent an enjoyable day with my cousin Romina - has a tower with trees growing out of the top.


I climbed it. You may be wanting proof ...


To drag this post back vaguely back on topic, Lucca did seem to offer a wide selection of GF and indeed vegan options, judging by the prominent menus I caught sight of that were doing their hardest to lure tourists (among them many north Americans and Spaniards), but I spent very little time exploring the matter further. I'm afraid learning of a small wood floating up high against a springtime Tuscan skyline rather distracts you from matters gluten-free ...

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Peanut free snacks

Landgarten is an Austrian brand of sweet / chocolate snack foods that I came across at the Natural and Organic Products Europe show last month. At first glance, it doesn't look as if it might be particularly promising from a free from perspective, but the range is gluten-free - and peanut free.

Peanut free (and tree nut free) snacks are notoriously difficult to find - and what I found curious about this brand was that there is no indication on the products (at least on those I looked at) that they are safe for those who only have a peanut allergy and not an allergy to the tree nuts (eg pistachio, walnut, hazelnut etc).

The Ginger in Dark Chocolate, for instance, carries a "may contain traces of nuts and milk" warning. Anyone with a peanut allergy would almost certainly replace the product on the shelf at once - and with good reason. The Food Standards Agency's Food Allergen Labelling Technical Guidance document says, in Clause 71:

"The use of the generic term ‘may contain nuts’ to cover both nuts and peanuts is permitted if the risk of contamination is from both foods. There is no need to provide details of specific nuts under this type of voluntary labelling."

Yet, contrary to what you might infer from the precautionary allergen labelling, the Landgarten site confirms the brand to be peanut free, and their representative at their NOPE show stand told me it was because their factory is peanut free and no peanuts are used in any of their products. 

Those long-used to shopping for nut and peanut allergies - either for themselves or for their children - may well be familiar with the routine of calling up food companies for further information about their ingredients, cross-contamination protocols and factory workings - but those newer to the game may not be, and may not think it worth digging deeper to find out more - yet this case may serve as a lesson that, sometimes, it can be ...

A selection of Landgarten products are available at Planet Organic (UK), Whole Foods Market (UK), and via Amazon (UK) and Amazon (US)

For other brands free of peanuts (and tree nuts, and all or most other allergens), click here
For other 'free from' finds from NOPE, click here

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Allergy free baby foods

Another notable find from the NOPE show which I attended earlier this month (see previous blog here) was the new Babease range of baby foods.

There are over a dozen products, divided into Stage 1 (4+ months) and Stage 2 (7+ months), and all are free of the top 14 allergens (EU) and top 8 allergens (US) - with no precautionary allergen labelling warnings either. Only gluten free and dairy free are claimed on pack, I was told by the team behind the launch, because these are the only two allergens actually tested. The production factory is nut, peanut, sesame and soya free.

Stage 1 products are 'smooth', and Stage 2 are 'textured' - and some use ingredients which have become popular in free from circles, such as coconut water and quinoa. The products are vegetable (and fruit) based, use brown rice and sweet potato as starchy components, and include some other ingredients which you might not normally see in the baby food market - such as fennel and puy lentils.

It's important to bear in mind the current official advice with regard to weaning and allergies - and that it is subject to change, in part due to the ongoing EAT study, and other research.

The World Health Organisation advise six months exclusive breastfeeding, and this is presently supported by the Department of Health, who say that babies can get all the nutrition they need from breastmilk (or infant formula). Weaning onto purees or mashes of parsnip, carrot, pear and sweet potato - considered low- or non-allergenic - is advised from six months, while maintaining breastfeeding or formula. Allergens (eg soya, milk, nuts, wheat, eggs) should be introduced from six months onwards, individually, with a gap of three days between each new introduction, in order to carefully track any possible subsequent reactions.

There is, however, little evidence that delaying weaning of allergenic foods prevents the development of allergy, and EAT is looking at whether introducing solids from four months may have a long-term protective effect against allergies. The thinking does appear to be shifting towards this direction - that allergenic foods should not be delayed - and perhaps that early introduction should be encouraged.

So although allergen-free products such as Babease may offer terrific convenience in the early days of weaning, perhaps have a role to play when you're introducing allergenic foods in small amounts and in a controlled way, and are obviously useful if your paediatrician, allergist or paediatric dietitian has advised you to delay allergen introduction, or indeed if your baby is diagnosed early with a food allergy - remember that it is not considered wise to protect your baby from oral exposure to allergenic foods for as long as possible!

Babease products are available from Amazon (UK and US), Ocado (UK), and via the Babease site.

For Allergy UK advice on weaning, click here.
For NHS advice on weaning, click here.
For Coeliac UK weaning advice, click here.
For information about the EAT Study, click here
For other allergen-free brands, click here

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

FreeFrom Food Awards 2016

I've lost count of the number of FreeFrom Food Awards I've now 'live tweeted' - four, five? - but it seems to get busier and more frenetic year after year!

We always ask that attendees and other interested parties use the hashtag - this year it was #FFFA16 - and most participants obligingly do - but add to that our handle (@FFFoodAwards) and a number of other related accounts (@FoodsMatter @FreeFromFood) which many use, and it adds up to a sequence of fast-moving streams with dozens upon dozens of notifications a minute that, while satisfying to witness, can be almost comically unmanageable during moments where bursts of activity take place. Apologies if I missed your witty comment or keen observation ...

As always, it was great fun being online last night at the Royal College of Physicians for the presentation of these, now the 9th awards - and every year people too far to travel or not lucky enough to be attending tell me how entertaining they find the live Twitter feed. So it's always worth the inevitable RSI hangover next day ...

Reflecting on the notifications now, it strikes me that we had more non-obviously-free from folk taking part or following with interest - general foodies, and some media folk, and health bloggers seemed to figure among the RTers and new followers. That's a good thing, right? Something the Awards' constant supporter over the years - Antony Worrall Thompson - said after he had presented deserved winners Nutribix's two Richards with Marble Mo (above) was that "free from people should not be seen as niche people but normal people" - and we need "normal" people to take more of an interest in these "niche" foods to understand that, yes, free from is normal - and often delicious, innovative and versatile too.

Regular readers will know I'm not a fan of selling 'free from' as healthier on false or unproven grounds - for instance, that gluten is 'toxic' to all, or that milk is 'unnecessary' (is soya milk 'necessary'?) but I am keen on the word spreading to non food-sensitives that there are new tastes to be enjoyed in free from, and that you can bring variety into your diet by embracing it a little - without going to the extreme of eliminating a food when you don't need to. I'm one who can eat anything, and I have oat milk and cow milk in the fridge. I have cashew cheese from the Natural and Organic Products Show Europe (more on that another day) and I have some regular Dutch cheese too. I have barley and quinoa in my store cupboard. This is 'normal'.

Anyway, my vantage point on the balcony, where I was located with my laptop, offered a bird's eye of all the leading lights in 'free from' catching up on the floor below - manufacturers, bloggers, judges, journalists, nutritionists and dietitians. The Italian in me likes to people-watch, and it's easy to forget how many friendships have been forged at these events over the years; the more sprawling and less structured but equally essential Allergy Show aside, there really is no gathering like it for networking in free from. So I was lucky to get to see bloggers and judges who have become firm friends, and meet others I've only ever 'chatted' with online. And to those who very politely admired my waistcoat (above right), all I can say is a/ 20p from a jumble sale and b/ witness White Rabbit Pizza's Nick's (above left - winner in the Pasta and Pizza category), who outwaistcoated me good and proper. I'll be back next year ....

A shout out to my mate and fellow finalist judge Simon Wright for ensuring that my beer levels did not drop below critical during the live tweet - and for keeping me good company for a portion of it - and to colleagues Michelle, Cressida and Hannah - who ran the show with aplomb, and from whom I have learned an invaluable amount since I've known them and befriended them.

And finally, although there are no losers here - just being shortlisted is an achievement - and Awards like this only tend to be remembered for its notable winners, I'll leave you with this, perhaps my favourite tweet from the last 24 hours. Not everyone can win an award, of course, but everyone who doesn't make the podium, can do so with some grace in 'defeat'. 'Free from' supporting 'free from' is the way 'free from' will get stronger, don't you think?
For a list of winners, click here.
For photos of the evening, click here.

Monday, 25 April 2016

New FreeFrom Foods at Natural and Organic Products Europe

A belated round-up of a selection of new free-from food finds from the NOPE Show 2016 held at Excel, East London, earlier this month. I'll be blogging (or posting on Facebook) about other products of particular interest individually over the coming week or so.

As always, it was a buzzing show, with exhibitors far more knowledgeable this year, it seemed to me, with respect to allergens - and not only gluten-containing cereals, but others too, which is an excellent development for those with nut, egg, milk and soya allergies, especially. It's not specifically a 'free from' show, of course, but many exhibitors appear to have wised up to this sector and the importance of being both confident and knowledgeable with respect to food hypersensitivities.

First up, pasta. Five 'flavours' of Really Healthy Pasta were on show - red lentil, mung bean, chickpea, buckwheat & flaxseed, and blackbean - and each available in two shapes - fusili (twists) and penne (tubes). They're gluten-free and made in a soya-free environment too. Most are essentially single-ingredient products, they're a good source of protein, and there is some very specific allergy-aware labelling...

For instance, the mung bean pasta - which I've tried and enjoyed - is "free from ... celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk or its derivatives, mollusks (sic), mustard, soybean or its derivatives, sulphur dioxide, wheat or its derivatives".

There is, though, a precautionary allergen warning: "May contain: nuts or sesame seeds".

You can find them on Amazon, or at Good Health Naturally UK and Good Health Naturally US.

Allergen Free Professional / Barcelonesa / Vegetall is a Spanish company / brand which is confirmed free from all top 14 allergens - and currently offers vegan mayonnaises and other condiments / sauces both for food service and consumers. Ice creams are in development.

Although they're not yet distributed in the UK, they're included here merely because they had a prominent position at the show, clearly displaying their '14 free' status, and because I liked their 'crossed allergen' symbols - all 14 of them (see right) - which it will be interesting to see whether other brands adopt in future.

I discovered Zootfoods at a previous show - perhaps last year's - and very much liked their fruit, seed, chocolate and nut bars - which to my mind were actually better (moister, essentially) than the much more widely known and established Nakd bars.

At the show this year, they were launching Zoot Zero - no added sugar chocolate - which is sweetened with stevia, and with maltitol (so low-FODMAP folk should probably avoid as it's a polyol).

There are three dark varieties - Smooth Dark, Zesty Orange, and Hint of Mint - and also a Creamy Milk. Interestingly, the products are certified free from added sugars by Sugarwise, a new food certification programme. They are also gluten free - as are all their other bars, which are mostly dairy free too.

Paleo Treats Europe are just arriving in the UK. They were launching three new chilled sweet snack products - the Brownie Bomb (honey, eggs, coconut, cacao and nuts), Cacao Now (coconut, egg, honey, cacao and vanilla), and the Mustang Bar (nuts/nut butters, raisins, seeds, coconut, vanilla, honey and sea salt) - all of which gluten, milk, soya and refined-sugar free. Despite my general dislike of the term paleo, the premise on which it is marketed, and the unproven health claims made for the regimen, I did find these tasty.

At the time of writing, you can sign up on their site for news of their launch, and further products are expected in 2017.

More paleo, with the launch of the Lucy Rocks Paleo range of products by Alara, already known for their organic and gluten-free cereals.

Any ingredient which has never been described as a superfood looks to have been banished from the five-strong range: Lush Crunch contains raw sprouted buckwheat, green tea matcha, barley grass, spirulina, mulberries, lucuma, hemp, pumpkin seeds and cashews, and the nutritional virtuosity shines out of all the other products too - Blush Crunch (baobab, beetroot ...), Chia Super Soak (cacao nibs, goji ...), Golden Granola (lucuma, apricots ...) and Glowing Granola (apple, beetroot ...). I'm assuming the range is aimed primarily at women, but this non-woman has enjoyed the samples he took home with him!

I'm unclear when the range officially launches, but it's got eye-catching and well designed packaging, is also vegan and free from refined sugars. The promotional leaflet mentions some 'innovative bars' so expect those too at some point.

Good vegan 'milk' chocolate is not easy to come by, so I was pleased to come across German brand iChoc, which uses 'ricedrink' to impart milkiness to their dairy-free chocolate products - which are also 100% organic.

Unfortunately, they are not particularly free from - the 'may contain traces of nuts, milk and gluten' rule the chocolate out for most allergic or intolerant consumers - but they are soya free and would be suitable for anyone who has a lactose intolerance or is on low FODMAP.

I'm not normally a big fan of milk chocolate, but this was among the best I've tasted for a while - especially the Almond Orange - and certainly better than some of the milk-free 'milk' chocolate products available in the UK.

Shame about the precautionary milk warning, though.

Best of the rest
Coconuts Nice Cream - 14 allergens-free 'creamy coconut nice cream' - made only with coconut cream, unrefined coconut sugar and coconut flakes.

Creative Nature - have launched 14 allergens-free Chia & Cacao Brownie Mix and Chia & Mulberry Muffin Mix.

Delightful Organic - launching mid-late 2016, a range of vegan sauces and pestos.

Enjoy Raw Chocolate - soya, dairy, gluten and refined sugar free; vegan and handmade.

Morlife - Australian brand, offering healthy and tasty looking ready-made quinoa 'risotto' meals in pouches.

Mrs O's Fuss Free Mixes - Egg-free, nut free and vegan cake mixes, also available in gluten free.

Nature Crops - wide range of quinoa-based products (flakes, flour, bars, puffs etc).

Probios GoVegan - launching into the UK, including a vegan croissant.

Saf Raw - Rebranding from Saf Express, with a colourful new look, and offering raw goods such as activated crackers, fruity coconut pastilles and nutty nori. GF and DF.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

It's all about the ebooks!

When ebooks first came along, I never expected to ever have much to do with them, and this position wasn't revised even when, first, my book on food intolerance was made available on Kindle, and then subsequently, so was the one on coeliac disease. Both do quite well (even though the first urgently needs a revision), and I'm glad they exist.

But lately ebooks have been taking up more of my time. Excuse the off-topic diversion, but some of you may know I also tutor writing part-time, and at the end of last year, self-published an ebook, 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make - aimed at new and aspiring freelance writers trying to make a living writing for the web, for magazines and for papers. In a nutshell: it's a book which aims to point out where beginners may be going wrong, and gives them pointers to putting those errors right.

More recently, I've been editing and formatting a new book called the Allergy Catering Manual, written by my regular working colleague and editor, and director of the FreeFrom Awards, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, and which previously existed in print form, but has now been thoroughly revised and updated, to incorporate recent years' allergen regulation changes in the EU. It is aimed at all caterers, restaurateurs and food service providers who wish to improve their allergy-friendly offer to customers - and do so safely while adhering to those all-important laws. We've just released the book this month, and you can buy it here from Amazon, priced for a limited period at £3.99.

We're not the only ones in the free from community to have jumped aboard the ebookwagon, of course, and in fact we've done so rather later than others! For instance, Samantha Stein - better known to many of you as The Happy Coeliac - has published Gluten Free Bites: Backyard BBQ and a Gluten Free Baking at Christmas, and, although she has been pretty modest about it, Carly Talbot - gfreeb to friends and readers - has self-published B's Kitchen Table: Gluten & Dairy Free Family Recipes.

Michelle is planning to publish a book on histamine intolerance by Dr Janice Joneja - a regular and valued contributor to the FoodsMatter.com site's histamine section - but she is also exploring the possibility of compiling some recipe books, and is currently surveying FoodsMatter readers on the matter. Do take two minutes to complete the straightforward questionnaire, if you can.

But before you do that, I need your help too. I've got a bunch of ideas for ebooks, but what would you - as someone with, or parenting someone with, coeliac disease, food allergy or food intolerance - like to see issued as an ebook? What would you find practical, useful, or even enjoyable? Or do you prefer print books, without exception?

I'm considering a guide to allergy and 'free from' labelling. I see the same queries cropping up on social media - many of them directed at the overworked allergy / coeliac charities - and wonder whether a brief, no-nonsense ebook on the rules and common sticking points might prove popular and useful?

Let me know what you think - and your thoughts about ebooks in general - including whether you've released or you're planning to release one of your own ...

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland: view from a chair

Last Wednesday and Thursday were spent in Dublin, having been invited to chair a day and a half's worth of judging sessions for the inaugural FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland, launched at the end of 2015 by John Burke of GF Life Ireland, a long-standing fellow judge on the FreeFrom Food Awards (UK). It was a maiden visit to Ireland, and I was taking over from David Johnstone and the FFFA UK's Michelle, who had been chairing on Monday and Tuesday (read Michelle's write up here).

The Irish format was very similar to the established British one. During a category session, panels of between 8 and 12 blind taste all entries individually, and in relative quiet (so as to not influence others), writing down their thoughts and giving marks out of ten - on the basis of such factors as taste, innovation, nutritional profile, usefulness, originality and more. Ingredients are available to judges (so the food sensitive can avoid any allergens), and at the end marks are totalled and results are used as a springboard to detailed discussion - sometimes heated! - before final decisions are made.

I have redoubled respect for Michelle, who unflappably chairs two long weeks' worth of such sessions in London, year in, year out, and remains full of energy throughout. It's not that chairing is especially difficult, per se, but it does demand concentration: that you remain fully alert to conversation and judges' mood when decisions have to be closed in on, and that you highlight any matters that may not have been given due consideration - given that the natural inclination is to heavily weight in favour of taste. Such aspects may include precautionary allergen warnings, numbers of free from claims, suitability to a wider 'free from' consumership, usefulness, innovation and nutritional profile.

I felt it important to challenge decisions, not to get judges to necessarily change their minds, or for no other reason than pure wilful disagreement, but instead to ensure they were secure and confident in their choices. If decisions are right, they should stand up to scrutiny - which mostly, but not exclusively, they did.

It's also vital for judges to understand how important their undertaking is. A win for a small company can mean a phone call from a large supermarket. Wider distribution can - it is no exaggeration - not only change the livelihoods of the company manufacturing the product and its staff, but also the lives of those on restricted diets. Decisions are important, carry responsibility, and shouldn't be rushed.

A row of artisanal Irish treats
I met a great bunch of people - which is really what made the trip for me - including Wholefood Revolution's Michelle (whose arrangements of entries on napkins were an artistic highlight) blogger Donna, aka Gluten Free Cailin ('cailin' being Irish for 'girl'), Maria, editor of Slainte Magazine ('slainte' being Irish for 'health') - and too many others. Gaelic pronunciation was a glorious education, in fact - those words are pronounced, approximately, caleen and slancher, but neither was as much of an eye-opener as Baile Atha Cliath - the Gaelic for Dublin - which, my garrulous cabbie reliably informed me, should be rendered as, again approximately, barley-uh ah-ha clia.

Of the discoveries at the table, there was a diverse (and rich) collection of artisanal cakes and treats (above left), some unusual raw / vegan chocolates - as well as a seaweed-flavoured chocolate - a two-dozen strong panel of crisps and snacks (from which I'm still recovering - although most of them were impossibly moreish) and some pretty good Christmas offerings, which, despite the Spring sunshine, still tasted good to me. From my limited exposure and flying visit, free from in Ireland seems to be in fine fettle, although my judges told me that some products (eg polenta, Nutribix) still either hadn't yet arrived or were still tough to get hold of, while others (paleo / raw goods, chia, quinoa) appear to have made their mark.

What I did notice was the difficulty in finding vegan and vegetarian food-to-go options at Dublin airport - which stood out even more given the relative ease of finding GF sandwiches. In one outlet, there were abundant prepared salad options - but not one was vegetarian (each either had prawn, tuna, bacon or chicken - and sometimes more than one). I could see no vegetarian sandwiches either - bar an egg and cress one, which happened to be gluten-free. Either the veggies were flying in force that day, or you're better off as a coeliac than a meat-avoider in the Emerald Isle, it seems to me.

But as for the Awards, for a first year, the team appeared to be remarkably well organised. Well over 300 entries, I hear, is no mean feat for an inaugural batch, and that takes some organisation and management. John, ably abetted by members of his family and the terrific Emma Clarke Conway, have clearly done a mighty fine job.

Day 2 Team Shot: l-r, Donna, Ann, Evan, Shane, me, Maria, David, Jo Ann
The team insisted and reinsisted I take some food in my hand luggage before I took my leave, and I eventually gave in to the power of Irish persuasion and departed with a packet of four mince pies. I hope they'll forgive me that I left them with the same chatty Irish cab driver - who this time, on my return to the airport, regaled me with tales of Irish politics, banking woes, women's hurling, Dublin rush-hour traffic (surprisingly bad), and its architecture (much of which he appeared to credit the British for). I hope he enjoyed his pies as much as I enjoyed my trip ...

Winners of the FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland will be announced on June 9th

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Walkers Crisps: goodbye ‘suitable for coeliacs’, hello ‘made in a factory…’

Looking for a list of gluten-free crisps? Then click here. This list was last updated in April 2016. 

If you're interested in the story of how Walkers Crisps went from being coeliac friendly to coeliac unfriendly back in 2012, continue reading .... 


So, Walkers Crisps. I’ve been meaning to write about them for months and the delay is partly due to my being busy with other stuff, and partly due to matters out of my control.

I think I first became aware of an issue when I saw this post on the Coeliac Kids website in the summer. This was a time when many food companies were busy getting ready for the new 20ppm labelling legislation, which came into force 1st January 2012. Walkers were no exception: they were removing the “suitable for coeliacs” message from their product labelling, and adding advisory statements on packs to the effect that the crisps were being made in a factory in which gluten-containing ingredients were present.

And people were frustrated about this. Among them was Debra Samuel, mother to a teenage lad with coeliac disease whose favourite crisps were now out of bounds. Debra started a Facebook campaign and petition to ask Walkers to reconsider. The FB campaign is still active, and the petition still seems to be live too.

In the Coeliac Kids post I linked to above you can see the full standard response Walkers were sending out to customers last year. You can also see my comment regarding the following line in that response:
“The change to legislation means that from 2012, food manufacturers will no longer be able to use a 'suitable for Coeliacs' claim, as this statement is being phased out.”
As I suspected at the time, and am certain of now, this statement is not and never was being phased out. The new legislation allows it to be used to accompany a gluten-free claim on a product meeting the sub-20ppm criterion. It’s a supporting statement, if you like.

In November, I emailed Walkers as a gluten-free customer, and was sent the same standard response, with the same erroneous line claiming the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ statement was being withdrawn.

At around this time, Debra told me of a meeting between Coeliac UK and PepsiCo (Walkers’ parent company). In a message she sent out to supporters of her campaign, she wrote:
“…their processing procedures make it difficult to commit to making certain flavours of the crisps gluten-free. It seems that they spray the flavourings on to the potato crisps and they say that it is difficult to clean the sprays between different flavourings. They are looking into ways that this can be done and they do seem to be willing to try and make the process gluten-free…”
So what appears to have happened is that Walkers could meet the pre-2012 legislation criterion for gluten-free of sub-200ppm levels for some of their crisps, but would no longer be able to guarantee the stricter sub-20ppm from 2012. I’m not quite sure how they came to decide this. Did they send various batches off for testing and the results were well above 20ppm?

I tried to find this out, among other things. I contacted Walkers’ publicist on the 28th November to request an interview with a relevant spokesperson. I wanted to ask them about this stuff, but also to ask why Walkers were telling people the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ statement was being phased out.

After chasing, I heard back on the 7th December. I was reassured that my query had been passed on, and that it was being dealt with. I phoned the publicist just before Christmas to follow up again, and got the same reassurance. Walkers had my number and would call me.

I’ve not received a call. I got bored of waiting and here I am.

Where are we now?

The fuss seems to have died down. I spy occasional queries or comments on chat forums – many from coeliacs saying they react to Walkers and advising others to strictly avoid them – and I see the odd blog post too, most recently this one by Debra Doherty of the Awkward Eater blog, which states that manufacturing methods at Walkers’ factories haven’t changed, meaning trace gluten levels in the crisps are unlikely to be any different to pre-2012 levels. She says:
“The new law, in an effort to clarify allergen labelling has only confused thousands of gluten-freers… However, if you have previously eaten Walkers crisps (at least the ones previously labelled as gluten free) and have been fine afterwards, then continue to do so.”

I’d take issue with this. Regarding the second remark, damage caused by gluten can be silent, so you may be unaware of it. Feeling fine after eating is no guarantee that you actually are fine, sadly. And as far as the previous comment goes, the new legislation’s aim wasn’t to ‘clarify allergen labelling’, but instead to reflect the stricter gluten-free standards Codex recommended in order to protect the health of those with coeliac disease throughout Europe.

Of Walkers Debra reports:
“They regret that the new law has caused so much confusion.”

Hm. I can’t help feeling that Walkers are trying to distance themselves slightly from the responsibility for that confusion and pin it instead on the supposedly difficult law. This isn’t wholly dissimilar to the way their ‘suitable for coeliacs’ ‘being phased out’ statement appears to give the impression, at least to me, of helplessness and blamelessness in the face of Europe-sent legislation.

This all feels disingenuous: the law doesn’t compel anyone to remove gluten-free or ‘suitable for coeliacs’ claims – it just places stricter demands on companies before they can carry on doing so. And is the law so confusing anyway? Arguably – not really. Here you go:

Under 20ppm = gluten free / suitable for coeliacs.
20ppm-100ppm = very low gluten / suitable for most coeliacs.

That’s pretty much it.

Now, granted, allergy labelling as a whole can be confusing, as my blog last month illustrated, but the sometimes difficult rules governing stuff like allergens and allergen boxes and the exemptions of certain gluten grain-derived ingredients (glucose syrup etc) have been in place for years – and have little to do with the legislation under examination here.

The Walkers case does not have many complicating elements – aside perhaps the ‘made in a factory’ warning. It’s a straightforward case of a product no longer being able to meet a particular standard, and having to remove a statement claiming that standard.

So would it be harsh of me to suggest Walkers didn’t communicate these changes effectively to consumers? The law was passed in 2009, it’s worth recalling, so there has been a three-year transition period during which all this could have been thought about, discussed, planned and implemented in the best way. Why didn’t they just tell people they could no longer meet the levels considered safe, and that’s why they had to remove the ‘suitable for coeliacs’ – rather than allow consumers to infer that the law was compelling them to?

So who suffers?
There are arguably lots of victims here: coeliacs who have fewer choices (especially kids), Coeliac UK at having to field what I imagine were hundreds of queries from confused coeliacs and, yes, Walkers at having to answer possibly many more queries, as well as complaints, all of which are a drain to staff resources. It’s only fair to point out that Walkers are under no obligation to provide for coeliacs, although from what I learned from Debra (Samuel) and CUK, they seem at least open to looking into the possibility and willing to engage. Surely a positive sign.

So what next? Matt of the Hungry Boyfriend blog posted a comment about Walkers on this yesnobananas blog post recently. He said:
“Part of me … thinks I should vote with my feet and not buy these products out of principle.”

0.2% of the population are diagnosed coeliacs. I wonder whether there are enough feet to make a difference?

Edited on 23rd February 2012 to add:
Have just received confirmation of two things:
1/ That Coeliac UK are still in talks with Walkers, are 'hopeful' that changes will be made, and will keep people informed 'as soon as we have any info we can share'.
2/ That Walkers are still, as of today, sending out the standard customer service message above, including the mistaken statement that 'suitable for coeliacs' is being phased out. 


Gluten-Free Crisps
If you're looking for gluten free crisps or chips, try the following (though always check labels as ingredients and policy occasionally change). Most are available via major supermarkets, but you can often get good bulk deals via Amazon dealers.

Burts Potato Chips
All flavours of Burts own branded chips are gluten-free.
Note that their Guinness, Levi Roots and Lentil Waves products are NOT gluten-free.
For more, see the Burts Chips website, or find via Amazon, or many major supermarkets.

Pom Bear 
Bear-shaped snacks in several flavours - plain, cheese, cheese & onion and salt & vinegar. Loved by kids but liked by adults too!
See the Pom Bear website, or find via Amazon UK or Amazon US.

Riceworks
All of these rice-based products are confirmed gluten-free.
To learn more, see their website. Some products available via Amazon.

Seabrook Crisps
"Our full range of crinkle cut, straight cut and lattice crisps are gluten free"
A large selection of mixed flavours and boxes are available via Amazon UK and many major supermarkets.

Ten Acre
Their crisps and popcorn range are gluten free.
Click to their site for more information. Packs of 18 deals on Amazon UK too.

Veronica's Snacks
Irish brand of snacks, confirmed gluten-free.
To learn more, see their website. Some products available via Amazon UK.